The Politics of Being Somali in East Africa Blog / Dispatches

Dispatches #4 Arusha – These last few weeks in Arusha have taught me what it means to exist as a body that is read differently from the average Tanzanian. There’s no question that my Blackness gives me a particular kind of African membership, but my body is still viewed peculiarly.

My hair produces the greatest confusion. When it is uncovered people ask me if I’m biracial, insinuating that my curls are only possible if one of my parents is white. When its in a hair wrap, people yell ‘warya’ at me from across the streets startling me and making me feel hyper visible where only moments before I was anonymous. Clothing and in this case head covering is the way in which I become marked. This is the way in which I become understood as either Somali or not Somali, if I am visibly Muslimwith particular features I must be Somali and if not I cannot be. All of this while my curls mark me as not quite African enough.

One day while I mind my aunts’ shop two Tanzanian women enter. They tease me about my lack of conversational Swahili and state emphatically that I need two languages in order to survive. I laugh with them and say my fluency in Somali gives me my second language. They hadn’t placed me as Somali before that moment. I can tell instantly that the mood in the room has changed. One of the women is clear in telling me Somalis bring large problems with them wherever they go. They are troublemakers.

I’m angry, the hot air balloon in my throat is large and fills fast. My heat shows on my face and I turn on my heel and walk away leaving the shop girls to help them finish choosing the clothes they wish to buy. My anger is still reverberating through my body. The callousness of those who would dare call me or my people an imposition is heady.

My aunt tells me that she has to be careful when she hires workers for her businesses. She is often taken advantage of, stolen from and shown less respect because of her Somali identity written like a talisman on her body. She tells me that she is welcome only when she is seen as Swahili, but must keep a distance to keep herself and her businesses safe and profitable.

A few days later another man enters the store. After perusing for a few moments he asks us who owns the store. The shop girl is quick to say tell him the owner is Somali. I’m surprised at her quick disavowal of my aunt who has spent her entire lifetime in Tanzania, who would call herself a Somali-Tanzanian. The man looks at us and with a laugh in his voice says I better not ask for a discount then or the owner might … then raises his hand and slashes from one ear to another. The man and the shop girl laugh together, she almost falls over in her delight.

It’s harmless the laughing even the motion is just a movement of a hand, but it is deeply insidious. It is representative of a larger narrative of the war on terror that has found itself being remade on the lands and shores of East Africa. Somalis over the last 15 years have been cast as the villains in this part of the world. In fact a great deal of energy is spent by political leaders in reminder of the correlation they’ve made between instability, violence, terrorism and Somalis, terms that have become interchangeable. There’s no surprise that Kenya and Ethiopia have wanted to divide up Somalia for years, the recent leaked Saudi Cables are a great example of the ongoing Scramble for Somalia that is taking place. With more than just the Americans and the Europeans interested in containing and controlling an unfettered access to resources.

So while the laughter itself is harmless and I’m hardly going to reach over the desk and strangle the man for running his mouth. I, at the very least, manage a deadly stank eye followed by a dismissive wave to reify the air of arrogance in the room. What it tells us instead is the instability of Somali as an identifier the globe over and the resistance Somalis continue to face. East African countries are no less responsible for the decisions they make concerning Somalia and in fact act as the long arm of the US and European governments. And the scapegoating of Somalis needs some recourse especially knowing that these are countries dependent on Somali labour, exports and instability.

One of many places Somalis in both the diaspora and on the continent share a common experience is the ongoing xenophobia and anti Black racism that formulates our combined politicized Black Muslimhood, refugee status and continued loss of home.

Dispatches is a regular series of posts from Collective members traveling or living in East Africa.

Hawa Y. Mire is a diasporic Somali storyteller, writer, and strategist who focuses on themes of Blackness and Indigeniety, (dis)connection and (un)belonging. Her writing is seated somewhere between oral tradition and the written word, celestial and myth, past and present, ancestry and spirit. An MES candidate in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, her research incorporates traditional Somali stories with discourses of constructed identity while pulling from archival histories of resistance and radical curatorial practises.


  1. Ali Mohamed Says: August 30, 2015 at 2:20 pm

    I enjoyed reading your piece. It is ironic that as a Somal in Arushai, you were viewed as a foreigner. Somalis made their way to Tanzania as British soldiers around 1920. In Arusha, there are several well known Somali families who are very successful business owners, and have even ventured into local politics.

    As a Somali, I hardly get noticed in Tanzania. Arusha is beautiful. I had the luxury to take the Dar-Express Coach from Namanga, all the way to Dar-Es-Salam, and no one bothered to ask me or cared if I were a foreigner. Tanzanians mind their business, and could care less about your origin, or ethnic background. It is a fact that wherever we go, we cause problems, especially when we bring our superiority complex and business acumen.
    I think clothing is the first thing that betray someone’s origin. I mean who can miss the Maasai’s red and white shukas wrapped around their body, and the Maravuvales, not to mention the speer they carry with them? Other than that, you can hardly distinguish them from Somalis. Of course there other physical features that are somewhat distinct to the Maasai. Tanzania is far from being homogenous.

  2. What do you mean by your ‘blackness’ ?

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